Given the continued existence of Guantanamo, the expanded wars in the Middle East, not to mention, expanded war powers at home, it shouldn’t be surprising that once again Barack Obama has chosen George W. Bush as his role model.
This is the 2004 election all over again. An embattled incumbent struggles with his popularity due to the perception that he has badly bungled the nation’s most important crisis, albeit one that wasn’t his fault since he inherited it shortly after taking office. The perception is reinforced by the Presidents’ focus on issues thought to be tangential to the central crisis. In 2004 it was the opinion that the war against al Qaeda was the big issue while an unnecessary war in Iraq was a poorly planned fiasco that made the real problem worse. Today the issue is jobs, while the generally accepted view is that the two-year-long focus on a health insurance program was both distracting and counterproductive. Furthermore, this week’s Democratic convention shows that Obama’s re-election platform is vintage Bush: The incumbent promises four more years of the same. Only, instead of more troops and more money, it’s more spending and more money
On the challenger side we have parallels with 2004 as well. Both are unsympathetic rich men from Massachusetts whose past includes prominence in the arena of the central crisis where the incumbent has demonstrated none. It was Silver Star awardee John Kerry eight years ago and it is successful businessman Mitt Romney today. Even their foibles are similar. The etch-a-sketch metaphor for Mitt Romney is a virtual replica of John Kerry’s wind-surfing video. Meanwhile it’s hard not to hear echoes of “I was for it before I was against it” whenever today’s challenger tries to explain away his former support for statist health care. Even the vice presidential challengers are similar: youngish white men from long-shot, though still competitive states, and whose experience appeals to their party’s base: trial lawyers in 2004 and budget cutters today.
But there are differences. In 2004 George W. Bush didn’t have the luxury of being able to lose a few votes and still win re-election. He won the Presidency the first time around by the slimmest of electoral margins and actually lost the popular vote. Bush needed to pick up voters and states to win a second term. Barack Obama can still win even if he drops a point or two from his previous result and loses a few states he once won.
Still, that should offer the current incumbent little comfort. His campaign has lost electoral votes due to redistricting and has already conceded Indiana. North Carolina, which he barely won by 5,000 votes four years ago, is also all but gone. As for constituencies, there are many where Obama has lost support. Young voters support him in smaller numbers this time and appear far less enthusiastic than they did before. There is a real risk that the Democrat will fall under 50% with non-governmental labor voters. Additionally, polls continue to indicate slippage with Hispanics, Jews, and Muslims. As for blacks, exit polls four years ago indicated a level of support that was within the margin of error of 100%. There is no upside left. Joe Biden’s “chains” remark was calculated to ensure that blacks came out to vote in numbers matching 2008’s levels so that Democrats don’t lose those numbers.
Even more alarming to the Obama Campaign should be his overall standing in the polls. Since July his approval ratings have stayed below 50%. Eight years before George W. Bush dropped only once below that level in the last four months before the race.
Confronted with similar challenges, Obama looks to have employed Karl Rove’s plan: highlight social wedge issues to drive up his level of support among a large constituency generally predisposed in his favor. Bush targeted Evangelical Christians; Obama bases his reelection campaign on getting even greater support from childless women. And the central argument by which Obama means to make his case to women is abortion. To me, it appears to be an argument that is both patronizing and simplistic.
I’ve spent the last few months in Germany where, true to the stereotype, outdated American pop culture rules. Yes, David Hasselhoff is still popular here, as evidenced by the fact that his 60th birthday two months ago was a leading story in the German news. One fifteen-year old song currently making the rounds over here is Meredith Brooks’ Nothing In Between. “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint . . . ” she refrains again and again. Though somewhat crudely, she makes the rather obvious point that, just like men, women are complex beings irreducible to a single description or category.
But Obama has chosen a view of women opposite that of Ms. Brooks. To today’s Democrat, if you have a uterus, you must vote blue. Code Pink metaphorically represents this strategy. Dressed in giant vagina costumes, they have reduced womanhood to an organ. Yes, I find it more than a little ironic that the transgendered part of the GLBT community overwhelmingly aligns itself with the party that wants to categorize people solely on the basis of their plumbing.
We saw evidence of the Democrats’ strategy over and over in Charlotte where seemingly every speaker highlighted abortion. If Republicans are the party of God (and they are not), it’s as if Democrats have purposefully chosen to be the anti-God—even to the extent that they willfully created the spectacle of their rancor over any reference to God in their platform.
So now that both parties’ conventions are over we have the script for the next two months. Republicans have consolidated their base around deficit reduction while they attempt to win over independents with a focus on jobs that they say Obama has mistakenly ignored. Democrats meanwhile propose more of the same to fix the economy, while they focus on demonizing Romney and attempt to frighten its most ardent supporters into maximizing their turnout. It’s a plan that has a chance of working. Romney, like Kerry, has just enough deficiencies that he very well could lose to an unpopular president.
But it’s a plan with great risks. One difference from eight years ago is that today there are now roughly twice as many independent voters. Throughout 2004 those unsure whether or not they approved or disapproved of the incumbent hovered between three and six percent. This year opinion polls show that between six and nine percent of respondents are unsure about the president. These are undecided voters whom Romney has courted and Obama has ignored. The Democratic convention made clear that Obama isn’t trying to win their support so much as he wants to make Mitt Romney unpalatable.
Another risk is in the medium to long term. For one thing, building your organization’s core message around the childless isn’t exactly a model likely to yield inter-generational success. Secondly, pinning your party’s hopes on the most vocal advocates of a highly controversial social issue, when there is near universal agreement that other issues are more important, gives your party’s megaphone to those who are both extreme and irrelevant. Sandra Fluke is this year’s Terri Schiavo. For every already-Democrat she inspires to vote, she turns off at least one independent for the crime of insulting them by ignoring larger issues. Karl Rove’s plan to drive up Evangelical turnout in 2004, while it worked then, gave rise four years later to Mike Huckabee, who is perhaps the most demagogic and dangerous major presidential candidate to have run for office since William Jennings Bryan beclowned himself and his party in the late 19th century. It should have taken years for the GOP to disassociate its reputation from Huckabee’s form of Evangelical theocracy. Except now it appears that Democrats look ready to rush into their own version of anti-First-Amendment totalitarianism that, instead of forcing adherence to religious views, forces opposition to them. Most Americans hate both extremes of this tangential debate. If Obama does win, you can be sure that the most extreme pro-abortion voices will shriek even louder in 2016. That can’t be good for Democrats.
Returning to poll numbers, the President’s strategy appears to me to be less likely to work now than it did for Bush in 2004. Bush straddled 50% support almost throughout 2004. If you’ve got half the vote, you can afford to focus your efforts on turning out your base. Barack Obama almost never sees poll numbers that high. Particularly among likely voters, this President is mired around 46 to 48 percent. Coupled with 2008’s remarkably high turnout among usually low turnout youth and minorities, it’s hard to see him hitting 50%.
But give Obama points for consistency. After 2010’s complete Democratic collapse in the worst mid-term congressional landslide in at least a generation, there was much speculation that Obama would, like Bill Clinton before him, pivot to the center. He did not and still does not. Refusing to offer any significant legislation where he could meet Republicans on common ground, he has staked his future on the past two years of no accomplishments while he stokes his party’s disdain for the other side. I think that it is a strategy destined to fail.
But if he succeeds? I suspect that we’ll see yet one more Obama-Bush parallel: a slim-majority reelection of a mediocre president whose own party’s second-term support dissipates in the absence of an electoral challenge.
The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes today that the currently unfolding scandals at the General Services Administration and the U.S. Secret Service may threaten the Obama presidency. Cillizza contends that the scandals visibly demonstrate President Obama’s competency problem. He’s right, of course. However, depending on how Mitt Romney frames the issue, he may himself face the same problem when he is the incumbent running for re-election in four years.
It’s often been said that conservatives don’t believe in the power of big government to compently solve big problems. True. And in 2005 Republicans went about proving incompetence by not solving the problems presented by Hurricane Katrina. The American people, of course, weren’t happy about that. So they elected a guy who made competency one of his “central pillars.”
After almost four years the results of the President’s competency are in:
Cash for clunkers used taxpayer dollars to subsidize wealthy car buyers who brought forward their purchases from the future, precipitating a huge decline in auto sales after the program’s end . . . just as the program’s critics said that it would.
Three years after the $800 billion stimulus plan, the unemployment rate has now ”fallen” to a level that is higher than the Presdident said it would ever get if we passed the stimulus package . . . just as the plan’s critics said it would.
Obamacare really doesn’t expand coverage while reducing costs (Duh) but actually increases costs and incentivized companies to cancel their employees’ health plans . . . just as the plan’s critics said it would.
Appeasing Iran, “resetting” the tone with Russia, intervening in Libya, promoting an overthrow in Egypt, encouraging indebtedness in Germany, and giving the finger to our two closest allies (Canada and the UK) have *surprisingly* resulted in a less stable world . . . just as the President’s critics said it would.
I could go on, but it would be redundant. For a man who promised competency, President Obama sure seems to have the anti-Midas effect: everything he touches turns to into a lead balloon that crashes into the ground.
The difficulty for Mitt Romney is that if he tries to reinflate hope, as Cillizza suggest when he says that the Republican should frame himself as “the ultimate turnaround artist,” he will himself fail. The central problem is not that Barack Obama is incompetent–he is, spectacularly so–however, the crux is that government, by its very nature, is incompetent.
One principle of organizational design is that the larger the organization is, the fewer the levers available to control it. And there is no organization in the history of Planet Earth so large as the United States government. President Obama has no responsibility for million dollar Vegas boondoggles or Colombian brothel visits, because no one man could possibly exercise the span of control required to prevent those kinds of occurrences in an organization so vast as the United States government. Just those two agencies alone are monstrously large enough: the Secret Service’s more than 4,000 agents are positioned around the entire globe, while the GSA has nearly 20-times the number of employees and 20-times the budget of Cillizza’s Washington Post. And yet, within the grand Washington scheme of things, the GSA and the Secret Service are minor players. Combined, they are well under one percent of the federal budget. So insignificant are they that I would be surprised if, before the scandals erupted, the President even knew the names of the agencies’ directors.
Government at all levels is always inefficient and is often ineffective. Just go to a local school board meeting if you don’t believe me. There you are likely to find well-meaning, but mediocre leadership that is burdened by innumerable and conflicting constraints imposed by the necessity of being all things to all people. Multiply that local confusion by several orders of magnitude and you have Washington, DC.
President Mitt Romney is incapable of leading the federal government competently becasue government by its very nature is incapable of achieving a level of competence that rises to a level that would be acceptable in the private sector. The best that we can hope for is that new leadership in Washington can reduce the level of incompetence. And the only way to do that is to reduce the size and scope of Washington.
UPDATE: The Hill is essentially running the same story that the GSA and SS Scandals hurt the Obama competence meme.
I promised last week to discuss Sarah Palin and why some people are fascinated, repulsed, and generally obsessed with her. Well, don’cha know, that witty ol’ Iowahawk just went ahead and wrote my piece for me. That was mighty neighborly of him. And he is far too humble, limitin’ himself to the notion that Homunculus Sarah Palin lives only in lib’ruls heads. No siree, she’s alive and well in the heads of a lot of Republicans too. I ‘magine sometimes even without the bikini.
Since every great political movement needs a bumper sticker slogan substitutable for actual thought, here’s one that capitalizes on the language increasingly coming from Washington these days.
“Bush did it too.”
Memorable, short, and to the point. The acronym “BDIT” has the added bonus of being pronounceable, unlike that unwieldy “WWJD” I see on the backs of jalopies in the less fashionable neighborhoods of some of those backward states.
So if you’re tired of having to justify to your conservative friends how it’s different when President Obama fills his staff with former lobbyists? Don’t bother. Just “BDIT.” Or when President Obama signs a bill that no one on his staff or on Capitol Hill has read, simply shut Republicans up with their awkward memory of the passage of the Patriot Act, when you respond “BDIT.” It’s a phrase that works great in any number of situations: Guantanamo, shafting injured veterans, the national debt–all kinds of potential unpleasantness is easily avoided when you remind Republicans that President Obama is exactly the same as Bush. And isn’t that what real change is all about?
Plus, BDIT, pronounced Bee-Dit, sounds just like “beat it,” which is what we’d really like to tell those red state knuckle-draggers. “Beat it,” as in, “Enough already with all that principled opposition; we won god damnit!”
Which, come to think of it, would make a great bumper sticker too: “WWGD.” Too bad you can’t pronounce it.
To be fair, it takes time to properly staff a new Administration. Vetting is a process that can take many months, particularly for those potential nominees who have no previous security clearance. However, from Bill Richardson to Tom Daschle to Charles Freeman to Rodgin Cohen and many more, the current level of ineptitude in filling the nation’s key government positions is staggering.
I’m reminded of all the idiotic calls late last year for President Bush to summarily step down from office and hand the Presidency to Barack Obama prior to January 20th, the inauguration date mandated by the Constitution. Had that occurred, the scene depicted in the SNL skit where the Secretary of the Treasury doesn’t even have anyone in his office to answer calls would have been repeated across countless DC departments.
Unfortunately, I’m becoming increasingly concerned that President Obama was in need, not of an early debut, but of training wheels.
We were warned:
Neither the Big Money crowd nor the Mr. Market crowd has fully priced in the prospect of a Democratic president and a heavily Democratic Congress. A total electoral blowout could result in (1) healthcare reform that is more heavily tilted toward government control than is currently suggested by the candidates’ proposals, (2) greater than anticipated tax increases, including a doubling of the capital-gains-tax rate and a surcharge on wealthier Americans—in addition to a rollback of the Bush tax cuts.
- James Pethokoukis, February 6, 2008
. . . a new land mine is lurking: “the Obama market.” Political ramifications represent a significant added market risk that should not be ignored,” he says. Initial polling suggests that Senator Obama will be the next president, a view Mr. Allmon shares. An Obama presidency is certain to mean a big tax increase, he says. He also points to the likelihood that the senator will seek to raise the marginal tax rate to 52% from 39.6% and hike the capital gains tax rate to at least 25% from 15%. “He’ll cause more damage to the stock market and even make Jimmy Carter look good,” Mr. Allmon says.
- Charles Allmon, June 30, 2008
Investors this summer have been placing their bets on an Obama presidency, and for the most part that hasn’t been good for the market. . . they are voting with their shares by tossing financial, health insurance, manufacturing and high-dividend stocks into the ash can, and are growing skeptical about energy companies as well. . . Obama’s rhetoric on taxes and health care is scaring common wealthy people with large capital gains from investments made over the past decade, and a lot of them don’t want to wait around to see whether it’s just populist fluff that might be set aside once he takes office.
- Jon Markman, July 14, 2008
I think it would be an absolute cheap shot to blame the falling stock market on Wall Street’s sudden realization that Barack Obama will very likely be the 44th president of the United States. But is fear of a potential Obama presidency playing any role at all in the weakness? [At this point it is not a cheap shot.] How many investors, I wonder, buy into the theory of economist Peter Morici, hardly a conservative mouthpiece, who says, “Obama’s tax and redistribute policies will not resurrect jobs, wages, or the price of stocks in American retirement accounts. Ordinary Americans who have to earn their livings outside the cosseted confines of Wall Street will be not much better off two years from now. In fact, Obama’s policies may make economic conditions worse.” Now, it is an interesting economic experiment that we may be about to undertake: Do exactly the opposite of what we did as a nation the last time America was in deep economic trouble, coming out of the 1970s. It’s like we are going to replay the 1980s, but with Ted Kennedy as president.
- James Pethokoukis, October 7, 2008
. . . while the polls are reflecting Obama’s steady hand, the markets haven’t. In fact, they’re getting worse by the day as Obama’s lead widens. Most investors know the devil is in the details – and the details of Obama’s economic plans are anything but reassuring. The country is headed for recession; the only question is: Just how low can the markets and economy go? It could be a lot lower – it all depends on the policies of the next president. And, as it looks increasingly likely that Obama will be that man, the markets are casting a vote of “no confidence.”
- Charles Gasparino, October 28, 2008